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Descent into Dreamland

Dreams provide the most interesting information for those who take the trouble to understand their symbols. The results, it is true, have little to do with such worldly concerns as buying and selling. But the mean­ ing of life is not exhaustively explained by one’s business life, nor is the deep desire of the human heart answered by a bank account. – C. G. Jung

  1. MARIE-LOUISE VON FRANZ is a Jungian analyst practicing in Küsnacht, Switzerland. She did her personal analysis with C. G. Jung and worked directly with him for over thirty years. She is the author of numerous books on analytical psychology and collabo­ rated with Jung on two of his major works, Man and His Symbols and Mysterium Coniunctionis. Our conversations took place in her consulting rooms overlooking the Lake of Zurich.

Dr. von Franz, how long have you been studying dreams?

Well, I think about thirty years. I have figured out that I have interpreted approximately something like sixty-five thousand dreams. That’s a minimum.

You must often have asked yourself a question that’s always puzzled me. When I go to sleep, I enter a void. I no longer exist. Then suddenly some inner power forces me to undergo an experience that I do not initiate-flying, driving, making love-and these experiences are as real as those in my waking life. What is. that power? Who makes up the dreams?

That is the most mysterious thing of all. Who makes the dreams? There is still a naive prejudice among many people that dreams express our own wishes, or our own schemes or plots. But the longer one looks at them, the more one sees that cannot be true. Too many dreams represent what we hate hearing.

The basis from which dreams originate seems to be, let’s call it with a vague expression, Nature-Nature itself. It’s a natural phenomenon. A dream comes from the same source as a tree or a wild pig. Now, you cannot say what makes a wild pig. If you believe in God, then you’ll say, “God makes the wild pig,” but, in any case, it is that unknown· power or mysterious force which makes all existence. So it’s best, perhaps, to call it by a vague expression, the Godhead or Nature. In that way we don’t pin it down to anything special.

By observing dreams for a long time, however, we do observe certain qualities and functions. They have a superior intelligence in them: a wisdom and a guiding cleverness which leads us. They show us where we are wrong; they show us where we are unadapted; they warn us about danger; they predict some future events; they hint at the deeper meaning of our life, and they convey to us illuminating insights. If you analyze dreams of artists or creative scientists, for example, very often you find that new ideas are revealed to them in their dreams. They don’t figure them out in their computer. Rather they come from the unconscious as so-called “sudden ideas.” We also have documents which show that many scientists first dreamt mathematical solutions before they worked them out consciously. So we must conclude that there is a psychic matrix which produces creative new insights.

After observing the dreams of human beings as a psychic life process, the only thing we can perhaps say is that this matrix seems to steer the ego consciousness into an adapted, wise attitude toward life. For instance, if a young, neurotic person refuses to go into life, it gives him a healthy push, or if aging persons cannot accept old age and death, it represents the meaning of old age and death to them in beautiful pictures. That matrix which makes the dreams in us has been called an inner spiritual guide, an inner center of the psyche. Most primitive people just called it God, or a god. The highest god of the Aztecs, for instance, was the maker of dreams and guided people through their dreams. A Christian would probably call that matrix the inner Christ figure in our soul. A Buddhist would recognize the same center. An old Zen master stated that the Buddha once said that when one is on the right inner path, one has good dreams.

So it looks as if there is within us a superior intelligence which we could call an inner guide or a divine inner center which produces the dreams, and that the aim of dreams seems to he an optimum oflife for the individual.

The dreams cannot protect us from the vicissitudes and illnesses and sad events of human existence. But they do give us a guiding line on how to cope with them, how to find a meaning in our life, how to

fulfill our own destiny, how to follow our own star, so to speak, in order to realize the greater potential of life within us.

Dr. von Franz, how did you first become interested in the study of dreams?

When I first met Jung, he explained a case of a woman who had a vision, and he interpreted her vision to me. That gave me a shock, for I suddenly realized that for him inner events, like visions or dreams, were the reality. They were a reality as well as what we call the outer reality. That was a great revelation. Then I read the books of Jung, and there I saw the importance he gave to dreams, and I felt I could never really judge if what he was saying was true or not true, right or not right, if I didn’t go through an analysis myself. So I took my whole courage in my hands and asked him if I could have an analysis with him, and he agreed. After that, every dream interpretation was a revelation. I seemed to have, according to Jung, especially difficult and complicated dreams, so I never understood a word of my own dreams. They were just Chinese-puzzling nonsense. I would arrive at Jung’s with that nonsense, and with a big effort he would unfold the meaning of it. Sometimes he took a handkerchief and wiped his head and said, “What would you do if you hadn’t a Jung to take you through that complicated dream?”

It was always a surprising revelation that lasted as long as I worked with him. Later, when he got old, I didn’t tell him so many dreams because I saw that it tired him. (Dream interpretation takes a real physical effort. It’s not just a mental exercise.) But in the first years of my analysis, the work mostly consisted of unraveling those Chinese messages of the night. I remember going to analysis in a tense, nervous, often depressed mood, and coming back after the hour with a feeling of “Ah, now I know, now I see where the whole thing is going. ”

The vast majority of the people we interviewed on the street said they did not recall their dreams. One young man said laughingly, “The main thing I remember about them is that I can’t remember them. ”

Why is it that people do not recall their dreams?

I think because they don’t pay attention. Some people have come to me and laughingly said, “You analyze people through their dreams, don’t you? Well, you can’t with me because I never dream. ” And I have just grinned and said, “Okay, let’s see. ” The next night, when they went to bed, they wondered, “Will I have a dream?” And just asking that question often tickled out a dream. It was simply that they didn’t pay attention. So, in fact, I have never met anybody who didn’t dream. Except sometimes people in a very, very heavily depressed state have what I call dream constipation. They don’t dream much and often feel better as soon as they begin to dream. Also the dreams get fewer in .very old people over eighty, and then they come up again shortly before death.

You mentioned that you needed a Jung to interpret your dreams. Is it possible then for the average person to learn the art of dream interpretation, or is it so complex that it is accessible only to an elite?

I think it’s like all the sciences; only an elite will go into the intricacies and the scientific complications of dream interpretation and the questions it raises. It’s a profession and it needs professional skill. The man in the street cannot pick it up and know it as well. But like all sciences, certain rules of thumb, certain generalities, can be spread to the general public. They are helpful to people who don’t want to go into analysis and who don’t want to plunge into the complicated scientific problems of dream interpretation. Among twenty unintelligible dreams there are from time to time very simple dreams which everybody can see at once.

The unconscious is, among other things, a great joker, a great jester, and from time to time it speaks right out-bang! So that as you write the dream down you explode with laughter and you know what it means. Just the other day, for example, I was very ill and revolting against my illness, and I dreamt that I was at a festival to greet old soldiers coming home from military service. And as they .handed in their carpenter’s tools, I saw that they were terribly old. They were a hundred years old, and somebody said into my ear, “Yes, they have kept those people much too long in active service. ” Now you don’t need to pay an analyst to understand that dream. At once I drastically reduced my work load.

But many of our dreams are not that obvious. I’ve had dreams that I was sure I understood, but later, after working with them, I was shocked to see how I tricked myself.

That’s why, in general, one should not interpret one’s own dreams. Dreams generally point to our blind spot. They never tell us what we already know. They tell us what we don’t know. But when people interpret their own dreams they tend to say, “Yes, I know what that means. ” And then they project what they already know into the dream. “Oh, that’s my problem such-and-such,” and so on and so on. I have often seen patients who do that. They come in and say, “I had a dream, but I know what it means,” and then they give a completely banal explanation of something they’ve known for years about them­ selves. And then I say, “Wait, wait, wait, let’s take the dream as it is, slowly, from beginning to end.” And it comes out quite differently and surprisingly.

So to interpret one’s own dreams is very, very difficult. That’s why Jung advised Jungian analysts to go to colleagues from time to time and exchange their views of dreams. He himself often complained bitterly, “I have no Jung to interpret my dreams. ” So he used to tell his dreams to his pupils, and even if they said something stupid, it might give him another slant on his dream and make him more objective.

The trouble with interpreting your own dreams is that you can’t see your own back. If you show it to another person, he can see it, but you can’t. And dreams point to your back, to what you don’t see, and you have to stand on your head, so to speak, to understand your own dreams. That’s the great difficulty. And· that causes so many errors.

I remember a schizophrenic patient who used to come with ready­ made interpretations which she took out of kitchen dream books. “Oh, it means that I’ll get some money,” or “It means I’ll get that job,” or “I won’t get that job,” and so on. Naturally, they were utter nonsense.

But if it is so beneficial to see your own back, why has mankind always been afraid of the dream world?

There is good reason for this. The unconscious itself can devour the human being. That is why the dream has not been attended to. We are now discovering that the dream world is the most beneficent thing on earth, and that attending to one’s dreams is the healthiest thing one can do. But the dream world can also devour a person by way of daydreaming, sp�nning neurotic fantasies, or chasing unrealistic ideas. You have only to go into a lunatic asylum to see the victims of the dream world. Someone is living in the dream that he’s Napoleon. Another, when you begin to talk to him, tells you confidentially that he is really Jesus Christ, but nobody seems to understand him. They have been swallowed by the dream world.

The dream world is beneficent and healing only if we have a dialogue with it but at the same time remain in actual life. We must not forget living. The duties of real living must not be neglected. As soon as· one begins to ignore m,1ter life-one’s own body, eating, doing one’s ordinary job-then the dream world becomes dangerous. We call that dangerous aspect of the dream world the devouring m;1con­ scious, or the devouring mother. It can suck us away from reality and spin us into a neurotic or even psychotic unreality. The dream world is only positive if it is in a living, balanced dialogue with a lived, actually lived, life.

Dr. von Franz, would you give a personal example of that dialogue? Have you had dreams which changed the course of your life?

Yes, I have had many dreams which changed my life, which I experienced as a great revelation. There is one in particular which I think is the biggest dream I ever had. That dream I dreamt between meeting Jung and asking him for analysis. I was eighteen, and on Christmas night I had what Jung would call an archetypal dream, a religious dream. It was a very long mythological descent into the underworld. One could sum it up as a descent into Hades, finding the mystical water of alchemy, and coming back with it. A kind of shamanistic journey into the land of death. I still consider it to be the biggest dream of my life. I woke up deeply shaken. I was so shaken that for a few hours I couldn’t move. I had to stay in bed shivering until I had the courage to get up and put my clothes on again. I told that dream to Jung, but he never interpreted it in detail. He only said, “I knew you had something to do with alchemy. When I met you, I knew that was so. And now we see. ” And that dream laid the basis for a major work of my life, my collaboration with Jung on the symbolism of alchemy. ~The Way of the Dream, Page 9-17

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